In a game with two Notre Dame interceptions returned for touchdowns, an LSU kickoff return for a touchdown and a last-minute game-winning touchdown drive, it was the avoidable play that stuck in my father’s memory.
I don’t give him enough credit when it comes to sports, partly because that’s secretly how he wants it. He knows and remembers a fair amount, but if there are lower expectations, he gets to surpass them more often. So when I called him Friday to confirm a vague childhood memory, I opened with, “I’m going to test your memory.”
“Go ahead,” he replied, in the last hour of an 11-day road trip.
“I have some recollection of going to an LSU game as a kid. Did that happen at some point?” I asked, knowing if the answer was affirmative then the “When?” would answer itself, since LSU has played in South Bend only once in my lifetime, and I have yet to enjoy a game in Death Valley.
“Yes. Did Notre Dame have a quarterback named Jarious Jackson or something like that?” he replied, an honest question even if it sounds like a leading one. “In the Touchdown Jesus end zone, something happened to him at the end of the game, but we could not quite see what it was.”
That’s it, that’s what my father could remember from a 39-36 shootout with closing drama, though that memory lasts for good reason.
Jackson had capped a day of 276 passing yards and 80 rushing yards with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Raki Nelson. With just 1:27 remaining, he had given the Irish a 39-34 lead, after trailing 34-20 not long before. The score kept alive slim Orange Bowl hopes, ones buoyed by seven straight wins, ones persistent enough the student section spent Senior Day throwing around oranges. (Even if finishing 10-1, the Irish probably would not have made the Orange Bowl, ending up in the Gator Bowl regardless, but a BCS berth was still possible in the season’s penultimate week. Imagine, Notre Dame putting together a strong season and being forced into a second-tier bowl game. Unfathomable, isn’t it?)
My father remembered none of that. He didn’t remember LSU’s Kevin Faulk rushing for 108 yards and returning a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown. He didn’t remember Notre Dame linebacker Bobby Howard returning an interception 89 yards for a score, sprung by a block from Tony Drive, or the Irish defense’s earlier 53-yard interception return to the end zone.
All he remembered was seeing Jackson down at the backline of the end zone.
The Tigers had mounted a drive after Notre Dame took that lead, only to stall at the 31-yard line with 21 seconds left. Rather than risk a handoff, Irish head coach Bob Davie instructed Jackson to kneel three times, each taking up a few extra seconds with a few extra backpedals. LSU’s three timeouts left Notre Dame with eight seconds to kill on fourth down, now in the lengthy shadow of its own goal line, so Davie did as many coaches have done over the years, instructed his quarterback to stall as long as he could before he took a safety.
“It’s one of those things that you practice all the time,” Davie said afterward. “We practiced for two years. Sometimes when you call it in the heat of the battle, it doesn’t get executed exactly right.”
Suffice it to say, the intentional safety was not executed exactly right. Jackson suffered ligament damage to his right knee and would miss the following week’s 10-0 loss at USC, costing the Irish those Orange Bowl hopes.
“I was supposed to run out of the end zone,” Jackson said. “But I looked up for one second to see where everybody was coming from, and a guy just pretty much blindsided me. He just basically hit me down on my knee at an angle.”
Few things dampen a Senior Day comeback ending an unbeaten season at home like a star quarterback suffering an avoidable injury as the final seconds tick off the scoreboard.
“They feel bad because it’s Jarious,” Davie said. “It’s not so much about going out to SC and all of those things, or what this means to the big picture. It’s all about Jarious. That’s what I feel. I just feel bad for him. I mean, here’s a kid who plays his heart out, running quarterback draws and counters and all those things, and he gets hurt taking a safety at the end of the game.”
The loss a week later to the Trojans, one of six such Irish shutouts in that series, overshadows the memories of the dramatic comeback in a chaotic game against LSU, but that image of Jackson down with three seconds remaining is one that stands out among 30 years of Notre Dame on NBC.
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